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Defender dispute seen at impasse


March 16. 2013 11:41PM
TERRIE MORGAN-BESECKER

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WILKES-BARRE – An attorney for Luzerne County said attempts to resolve a dispute regarding the needs of the Public Defender's Office have reached an impasse, prompting him to file a motion Tuesday seeking to set a trial date for the case.


Attorney John Dean said the county has made several concessions to address concerns raised by Chief Public Defender Al Flora, but Flora has refused to approach the process as a give and take and has instead used it as forum to raise petty grievances.


Plaintiffs have not offered to make a single concession in their position or relaxed their view that the county is nothing more than a checkbook which should immediately approve every request (the office) makes, Dean said in court papers.


Flora, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a class-action suit against the county in April, claiming his office was so underfunded and understaffed that it could not provide adequate defense to indigent defendants. The situation had become so dire, Flora argued, he was forced to limit the type of cases the office would accept, which led to hundreds of defendants being unrepresented.


At a hearing in June, Senior Judge Joseph Augello ordered Flora to resume representing all defendants who qualified for representation. He also ordered the county to allow Flora to fill vacant positions already included in the 2012 budget, and to provide the office adequate space.


Augello stopped short of dictating how many more attorneys or how much funding the county had to provide. He referred those issues to a mediator, former Judge Joseph Van Jura, in the hope both sides could work out an amicable agreement.


Those efforts have failed, Dean said.


In his motion, Dean says the county has taken the following steps to address Flora's concerns:


• Authorized the hiring of five full-time public defenders and the hiring of an expert to provide training to the newly hired attorneys.


• Worked with the District Attorney's Office and court administration to obtain counsel for roughly 500 defendants who had been denied attorneys under Flora's edict.


• Provided two additional conference rooms for assistant public defenders to meet privately with clients, and is also in the process of moving the Register of Wills Office to provide additional space for the Public Defender's Office.


Despite that, Flora has been unwilling to make any concessions or address policy or managerial changes, Dean said.


The mediation process has, therefore, run its course and has turned into a forum for plaintiffs to raise petty grievances and to avoid working cooperatively with the established mechanism and realities of the county's governmental system, Dean said.


ACLU attorney Mary Catherine Roper, who is representing Flora, said she could not comment on specific allegations because the mediation process is confidential.


Speaking generally, she said the county still has failed to meet its responsibility of ensuring indigent defendants are provided adequate defense.


Al Flora has made every possible effort to work with the county, Roper said. The county is no closer today than it was in June to meeting its constitutional obligations.


Roper acknowledged the county approved the hiring of five additional attorneys, but said that only accounted for positions that were already vacant. They removed the block on hiring five people they already budgeted, she said. That's a whole different thing than expanding staff.


The bottom line is the office still is not in a position that it can properly represent indigent defendants, she said.


That's the goal. … If we can't resolve that in mediation, we will certainly resolve it in front of Judge Augello, she said.


In a related matter, a federal judge has scheduled a case management conference for Feb. 20 in a federal lawsuit Flora filed against the county that seeks to protect him from being fired under the federal whistleblower's law.




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